17 January 2012


Thankfully, there are signs that all the feel-good "everyone's a winner" philosophy in education has run its course.  Recently the Washington Post published an article titled In Schools, Self-esteem Is Losing Favor to Rigor, Finer-Tuned Praise.  Here are a few relevant exerpts demonstrating why we haven't been doing our kids any favors in recent years ~

"For decades, the prevailing wisdom in education was that high self-esteem would lead to high achievement.  The theory led to an avalanche of daily affirmations, awards ceremonies and attendance certificates ~ but few, if any, academic gains.  Now, an increasing number of teachers are weaning themselves from what some call empty praise.  Drawing on psychology and brain research, these educators aim to articulate a more precise, and scientific, vocabulary for praise that will push children to work through mistakes and take on more challenging assignments.

" .... A growing body of research over three decades shows that easy, unearned praise does not help students but instead interferes with significant learning opportunities.  As schools ratchet up academic standards for all students, new buzzwords are 'persistence', 'risk-taking', and 'resilience' ~ each implying more sweat and strain than fuzzy, warm feelings.

" .... studies have found that praising children for intelligence ("You're so clever!) also backfires.  In study after study, children rewarded for being smart become more likely to shy away from hard assignments that might tarnish their star reputations.  But children praised for trying hard and taking risks tend to enjoy challenges and find greater success.  Children also perform better in the long term when they believe that their intellect is not a birthright but something that grows and develops as they learn new things."

Speaking from my experience as a student at secondary and university levels, and also from my experience as a teacher of high school students, I welcome this news.  Everyone in a learning situation (regardless of age) welcomes challenge, so long as they are being encouraged and treated with respect by an informed and enthusiastic teacher.  Just as we master a physical skill by starting out with the basics and gradually raising the bar for performance, so we also master intellectual challenge by imposing high expectations accompanied by training and praise for achievement.  That was certainly the approach during my education, and I thrived on it.  One might even go out on a limb and suggest that the narcissistic "high self-esteem" movement is responsible for the sharp decline in learning by U.S. students compared to students of other nations, in every subject from language to science to history to math.

Naturally, the quality of teaching is critical.  There are many fine, committed teachers and professors out there, people who stay current to developments in their fields, and who invest thought and creativity in their classroom performance.  As with any profession, there are also a number of slackers, teachers who are content to skate by, teaching from the same lesson plans year after year ~ and who are rarely aware of the dulling effect this attitude has on their students.  I'm a firm believer in merit-based promotion and the complete elimination of the tenure system.  Teachers' performance should be reviewed annually, based on the learning that took place in their classrooms, as well as on their furthering their own skills and knowledge base through attending in-service trainings, seminars, and taking advanced university classes.  And ALL teachers should be paid well, on a sliding scale based on merit.

Further, political and religious agendas must be removed from the classroom.  School administrations and school boards need to develop the cajones to stand up to pressure from parents' groups which seek to impose their own cultural prejudices on what is being taught.  This is true in the arts, in literature, and especially in the sciences.  I just learned of a national organization, the National Center for Science Education, whose mission is to free science teachers to do what they were hired to do ~ teach science.  Not religious fundamentalism, not conservative or liberal ideology.  Science.  

"The National Center for Science Education has been defending the teaching of evolution since Edwards vs. Aguillard, the 1987 Supreme Court decision that declared the teaching of creationism an unconstitutional promotion of religion .... the organization played a critical role in the Dover case, which blocked the teaching of creationism's descendent, intelligent design.

"Although the organization's title refers to science education generally, evolution has been the primary area of science that has been under attack for reasons that have nothing to do with the latest research.  But over the last several years, that's changed as more and more bills have been introduced that target both evolution and climate change .... [the NCSE] is broadening its support of students and educators to include climate change.

" .... the NCSE's work with teachers on evolution made them aware that teaching climate science was becoming controversial ... What they found were some clear parallels between evolution and climate science.  Just as the controversy over evolution takes place within the public but not among scientists .... There's not a debate going on within the scientific community about whether the climate is getting warm and whether people have a great deal to do with this.

" .... There are also parallels in terms of motivation.  The basis for antievolution is ideological.  There's also an ideological basis for anti-global warming, it just happens to be a political and economic ideology."

It is a sad indicator of the insecure faith in one's own religious beliefs that certain fundamentalist evangelicals feel compelled to impose their religion on others.  In principle, doing so is rather pathetic and often annoying.  In the public schools, there is absolutely no justification for ideology hampering or corrupting the teaching of science.  If you want to teach religion, do it in church or in the home.


  1. 'political and religious agendas must be removed from the classroom' agreed. Most people don't have a problem knowing that all of us we're once a feral, uncultivated baby. when it comes to being related to the natural world of animals..religious perfectionists become uppity and over look our species 'humble' beginning. I feel like I'm in danger when someone tells me they know what god wants.

    1. Thank you for your thoughts, Mitchell. I quite agree. I appreciate your taking the time to comment. :)

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